By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
This week’s Gospel offers some of the most challenging, urgently needed by us today messages found in Luke’s Gospel. It is a companion with next week’s Gospel, which directly follows this week’s passage. We will address them as a two-part unit in this and our next commentary.
The seemingly straightforward proclamation from the narrator (above) announces the huge shift in direction of both Jesus himself and the Gospel of Luke as a story. It sets up the eleven chapter long “travel narrative,” as Jesus turns toward the Judean capital and, of course, his own death (9.51-19.44). It begins and ends with the question of Jerusalem and “peace.” At the start, with Jesus headed south from Galilee, peace is to be found—or not—in the hospitality provided by strangers (10.5-6). At the end, Jesus weeps over the city, lamenting, “”If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (19.42). Between these two endpoints, Jesus tries to teach his disciples—as Luke tries to teach his hearers and readers—the sharp difference between Jesus’s peace and the Pax Romana, the “peace” provided by empire.
The journey begins by passing through Samaria, the region between Galilee and Judea. It should be no surprise that the Samaritans would not welcome sojourners headed for Jerusalem. The long history of animosity between these two groups goes back to the original separation of the briefly united kingdoms into the separate nations of Israel and Judah, nearly ten centuries previously. It was exacerbated after Exile, when the returned elite determined that (in their view) the cause of exile was marriage of Judahite men to “foreign” wives (Ezra 9). Further, the same elite refused to allow the former Israelites—now known by the name of their own monarchical capital city, Samaria—to participate in the temple-rebuilding project (Ezra 4). In other words, the Jerusalem elite treated their former sisters and brothers as “foreigners” and excluded them from their community. As a result of this inherited animosity, the Samaritans refuse to provide hospitality to Jesus’ Jerusalem-bound disciples.
The disciples, in an absurd attempt to play Elijah (1 Kg 18.37-38), fantasize about their ability to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” (Lk 9.54). This leads Jesus to tell them to “shut up!” (Gk, epetimesen). The key point is that the disciples are engaging in empire-think: an insult to one’s honor calls for a violent response. Jesus will have none of it.
This week’s passage continues with three brief encounters which Luke offers to illustrate the nature of the journey ahead. As they proceed on the road/Way (Gk, hodos, refers both to the physical and metaphorical nature of “the Way”; cf. Acts 9.2; 18.25-26, etc.), an undescribed individual proclaims, “I will follow you wherever you go” (9.57). Jesus responds with a pair of enigmatic animal metaphors about the homes of foxes and “birds of the air”. However, astute listeners will “get” the symbolism that equates these species with imperial powers. First, Jesus will later explicitly call Herod a “fox” (13.32). Second, “birds of the air” was a familiar apocalyptic image for the elite (e.g., Daniel 4.12, 17; cf. Luke 8.5). Thus, the message is clear: following Jesus will result in rejection and the lack of a home in the imperial realm (cf. Lk 7.25).
Next, Jesus calls someone to follow, but the person petitions, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (9.59). This does not mean that the father is already dead, but rather, the phrase is a figure of speech that implies the sacred responsibility to care for one’s elderly parent until they are dead and buried. Jesus’s response is utterly shocking: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Even more urgent in the divine economy than caring for one’s parents is the announcement of God’s reign! Of course, Jesus is not suggesting that one owes no responsibility to others. In fact, in Luke’s larger narrative, we hear that his purpose is just the opposite. He calls for the widening of the circle of care to include everyone who is a disciple, not just one’s own blood relations (8.19-21).
Finally, we hear from another potential disciple, who asks to be allowed to get his people’s permission (Gk, apotaxasthai) before committing to walk the Way of discipleship. The request is a reference to this week’s Hebrew Bible lection, where, after being found by Elijah, Elisha requests, “”Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you” (1 Kg 19.20). Elijah’s response anticipates Jesus’s own: “Then Elijah said to him, ‘Go back again; for what have I done to you?’” In both cases, the message is the same: the people at home will not grant permission, so the only question is, will you or won’t you follow? Jesus proffers an agricultural analogy: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is well-placed (Gk, euthetos) for the kingdom of God.” The specific image of “looking back” echoes Lot’s wife pining for her life in Sodom as they leave town (Gen 19.17, 26). We might liken it today to an addict remembering how “good” things were before embarking on the road of recovery. Once one chooses to come out of empire, looking back only serves to reawaken old temptations. It thereby threatens to dilute one’s commitment to the new familial bonds of life in the Body of Christ (cf. Exodus 16.3; also Acts 5.1-11, the story of Ananias and Sapphira).
These are challenging words indeed, especially for those of us—all of us?—who so often seek to “add a little Jesus” to our American lives. The central discipleship metaphor of “the Way” underscores the futility of this attempt: we literally cannot walk on two diverging paths at the same time. And if we truly belief that Jesus’s Word is “good news,” why would we want to make excuses for our hesitation to be “all in”? We hardly need to underscore the urgent need in our world today for the visible, embodied witness of the Beloved Community made flesh, for the Way of love, compassion and inclusion to be seen as a “real world” alternative to the vile rhetoric of hate and division that seems about to engulf us. Perhaps a hymn masquerading as a teen pop ditty expresses this best:
I love him, I love him, I love him
And where he goes I’ll follow, I’ll follow, I’ll follow
He’ll always be my true love, my true love, my true love
From now until forever, forever, forever
I will follow him, follow him wherever he may go
There isn’t an ocean too deep
A mountain so high it can keep, keep me away
Away from my love.
“I Will Follow Him,” lyrics © 1963 Normal Gimbel.